THE SHEN YUN OF SATANISM
A few days ago I read up on the omnipresent, cult-like Chinese dance troupe Shen Yun and it made me think about Satanism.
A lot of things make me think about Satanism. It’s a pretty prominent theme around here, as you can see.
This one surprised me though. I mostly went into the story looking to banish my uncertainty about what the hell Shen Yun even is (other than the reason purveyors of highly visible billboards across America can afford car payments of course).
According to those ads–which spread like the pox through an unvaccinated Marin County school district most years–the answer is that Shen Yun is about “5,000 years of tradition.”
Turns out this is not true. Instead it might be steeped in an even older tradition: appealing to history to fool yourself. Which is interesting, because I can’t help but notice that Satanists keep doing that too.
Writing for The New Yorker, Jia Solentino notes that it’s hard to figure out exactly what Shen Yun is supposed to be, despite the fact that in most major US cities the company is constantly marinading us in messaging about itself.
Turns out if you attend a performance it’s largely about freaky far-right politics:
“A man came onstage to sing, which was translated on the screen behind him. ‘We follow Dafa, the Great Way,’ he began. ‘Atheism and evolution are deadly ideas. Modern trends destroy what makes us human.'”
Okay, I’m starting to feel a little more generous in my attitudes about Cats instead.
There’s also a lot of anti-Marxist/Maoist imagery in the show. Shen Yun is a product of the Falun Gong society, a religious movement persecuted by the Chinese government.
“Falun Gong [teaches] that sickness is based in karma and that it was the gods’ plan to eliminate the gay population,” according to Solentino, which I guess means Shen Yun has two more things in common with Reddit than I would have guessed.
The most illuminating thing about Solentino’s story is that it turns out Shen Yun is not based on “5,000 years of tradition,” as their ads carved into the surface of the moon claim. In fact, this style of Chinese dance is probably only 50 or 60 years old.
SFSU art and theater professor Yutian Wong says that the tradition tagline is “a way for Falun Gong practitioners to reclaim their identity from persecution—bolstered by a tendency of Western audiences to perceive Asian culture as ‘authentic.’”
This made me think about the Book of Enoch, the strange apocryphal Jewish text from around 100 or 300 BCE. This visionary narrative tells how fallen angels, the Watchers, and their leader Azazel became corrupt by life on Earth and taught sin and misrule to humanity.
It’s not hard to see how Azazel and his Watchers later probably developed into the earliest stories of Satan. In her book The Origin of Satan, Professor Elaine Pagels writes that the authors of Enoch were trying to appeal to their own Shen Yun-grade ideas about authenticity:
“[The author] takes his beginning from the opening chapters of Genesis, choosing as his spokesman the holy man Enoch, who far antedates Abraham and, according belongs not to Israel but to the primordial history of the human race.”
Religions are always trying to anchor themselves in ancient history. Joseph Smith claimed that his Golden Plates revealed history back to 600 BCE; Wicca founder Gerald Gardner cited the supposed New Forest Coven as the source of his practices, ID’ing them as a throwback to pagan Europe; L. Ron Hubbard’s Operating Thetan manuals supposedly related events from tens of millions of years ago, etc.
Despite the supposed mandate of radical change, Satanists do this too. For example, Temple of Set founder Michael Aquino says he rooted his church in Egyptology because of revelations from the sinister god Set himself, but German theologian Bernd Schipper points out that this helpfully plants Setianism’s roots before Abrahamic religions, “to establish the dignity of its doctrine by making a connection with an older system.”
And I’m reminded of the Church of Ahriman, an Oklahoma City devil worship sect devoted to the Zoroastrian spirit of evil. “My studies have led me to the origin of the devil,” church founder (and registered sex offender) Adam Daniels said in a 2015 interview, employing Zoroastrianism to one-up rival Satanists.
Even the Church of Satan seems to feel that its comparably slim 50-something years of history confers authority on it. (Although their dogma discourages this kind of thought.)
You’re probably expecting me to scoff at these attitudes and encourage orgiastic destruction of historical norms. No gods, no kings, the White House will be petting zoo and turnips will farm people!
But actually I’m a bit of a reflexive classicalist myself. I like to emphasize history, academia, formal canon, and even institutions that I should probably be much more skeptical about. This all dates back to that time I was bitten by a radioactive first edition and became Scholar-Man. Or maybe that was a fever dream, I can’t remember.
We assume that new things may not last, that new interests may flicker out, that new movements will turn out to be fads or maybe just not as good as we thought to begin with. We crave the security of convention, even though we know it can be rotten at the roots.
Sometimes our lack of confidence in untried things is also about our personal insecurities. I hear it occasionally from Satanists we know or from Black Mass Appeal listeners: “I’m a baby Satanist,” they’ll say, sometimes tinged with anxiety about gatekeeping, personal uncertainty, and lack of guidance.
But maybe all of this is okay. We all have the power to consciously accept the risks that come with new things. Which means that when doing or being something new, we can choose to revere that novelty, even if it’s also our nature to worry about it.
And after all, if we don’t to that now and then, isn’t that an asset wasted?